Our societies need greater collaboration, we need more listening and we need it now.
The following text is adapted from the paper Unhealthy Neighbourhood "Syndrome": A Useful Label for Analysing and Providing Advice on Urban Design Decision-Making? (Al-Waer H., Speedie, J. & Cooper, I.) in a special issue "Happiness and Quality of Life in a Sustainable Built Environment" in the academic journal Sustainability. To read the full paper click here.
Our societies need greater collaboration, we need more listening and we need it now. A recent article in Dezeen declares that many challenges facing the world today “are defined by their interconnectedness and by change. They cannot be solved with the old processes, but require new forms of thinking and working...” [because they] “do not conform to neat disciplinary silos, but cross over into the messy space between politics, economics, culture, and…spatial thinking” . Bridging disciplinary silos to pursue shared goals and responsibilities is required to build a consensus that health, economic, social, and environmental outcomes are interconnected. The shared experience of Covid-19 has highlighted this challenge and opportunity, but what now? In this article, we investigate how those concerned about the health of our cities, towns and neighbourhoods navigate this complexity and identify their role in designing better places together to address urban and rural challenges.
To highlight a path forward, let's start with the roles of professionals traditionally responsible in the design and delivery of places we live, work and play. According to Ghaffarianhoseini , to solve interconnected challenges will require a rethinking of professional roles - a "new professionalism". A 'new professionalism' would mean professionals embracing and being supported by other decision makers to 'wear many hats’. This approach is not new, as built environment professionals are already increasingly are being asked, jointly if not individually, to possess and deploy a very broad range of skills. Professionals are increasingly being asked to supplement their existing knowledge base and technical skills—in design, planning and engineering—with social competencies.
Built environment professionals have long held high ambitions about how their skills and expertise can be exercised for the betterment of society. Can quality urban design deliver positive health, economic, social and environmental outcomes? Yes. (For more on this see Matthew Carmona explain here).
However, designers need to recognize that design alone cannot solve many of the pressing challenges facing cities, towns and communities today. While appeals to a “new professionalism” may act as a rallying call, by providing a means to enhance interdisciplinary knowledge and to unlock more synergistic design decision-making, we must acknowledge the limitations of such an approach [4-7]. It may give too much credit to the power of design, as a means of righting social wrongs that may require political decision making and deeper structural changes. Acknowledging physical design elements as one part of a complex puzzle to delivering quality places, we can begin to build out a framework for an interdisciplinary approach to urban design.
The urban design process is highly complicated, involving many actors, engaging with multiple contending forces, with interactions between all these. So where do professionals with disciplinary knowledge and expertise fit and what is their role in an interdisciplinary approach to urban design? To meet the diverse needs of residents, Ravetz  (p. 48) suggests the “architect may be also a sociologist; the surveyor may be an advocate of local economic development; the landscape designer a food activist”. As Figure 1 suggests, professionals must act (and be supported) as 'middle out' actors, enabling/disabling, mediating, aggregating working across disciplines with other professionals. This pivot could help unlock interdisciplinary knowledge and deliver synergistic design solutions that simultaneously achieve shared goals.
Even assembling interdisciplinary teams of professionals, no matter how inclusive the areas of expertise their disciplines bring together, will not be enough. The complexity of challenges require a new awareness from professionals and an appreciation of the critical role of 'design outsiders' (i.e., those typically outside of the design process). The level of inclusivity practised will have to extend ‘vertically’ as Figure 1 indicates. An inclusive participatory process must be capable of capturing “the wisdom of the crowd” , drawing from the experience and expertise of diverse groups of stakeholders rather than just professionals. To read more about the collective intelligence of communities in shaping places, see:
Shaping Better Places Together by Husam Al Waer, Ian Cooper, Frances Wright, Kevin Murray & Iain MacPherson
20/20 Visions, Collaborative and Placemaking by Charles Campion
There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach that is likely to be appropriate across the board. There is frequently competing viewpoints about how best to promote, economic, social, health and environmental outcomes—and indeed how much priority should be given to urban design in tackling them. A more integrated attack on urban challenges indicates the need for team-based decision-making involving not just urban designers but also all those 'middling out' actors responsible for an area’s development. It is this integrated approach and complexity which Figure 1 seeks to depict.
The methods employed for making decisions need to align not just with the contributions of professionals, but reconciled with those of “top down” political actors (who hold the purse strings) and with the “bottom up” aspirations and concerns of those affected when interventions in the built environment are being planned. Achieving the desirable outcomes cannot rest with a “single set of hands”—however “responsible” or “neutral” these may appear. A more inclusive network of shapers and framers -and of affected stakeholders - is required to solve interconnected challenges and move us towards a more sustainable future.
To read more about the need for an interdisciplinary approach to addressing urban challenges (specifically health and wellbeing in our neighbourhoods) view the full paper here.